Ashley Zhang: Using privilege for good

Thursday, March 16, 2017 - 6:58pm

More like this

As we drove down Carpenter Street in the Binghampton neighborhood of Memphis, Tenn., schoolchildren in royal purple polos and khakis flooded the sidewalk as school let out for the day. Their backpacks bounced on their backs as they crossed the street to the Carpenter Art Garden, a lively purple house with a yard full of large, painted, wooden hearts. Our tour guide, Noah Gray, the executive director of the Binghampton Development Corporation, explained they were part of a Valentine’s Day craft. The same hearts were speckled around the neighborhood, the children’s colorful masterpieces proudly on display in nearly every yard down the street. It was the picture of a loving, vibrant community. Though poverty levels and crime rates in Binghampton remain high, it was hard to believe people avoided even driving through it about a decade ago.  

Over Spring Break, six students and I visited Memphis with a global health and design student organization called Michigan Health Engineered for All Lives to serve the city — a destination that my mother constantly worried about. All she knew was that Memphis ranks as one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, and that statistic was enough for her to imagine a blighted, desolate ghetto. She’s not alone in this thinking. Media and statistics have framed Memphis — and similar cities of highly concentrated poverty and racial minorities, such as Detroit — as dangerous, drug-ridden and to be avoided. It was a perception that I, admittedly, shared before a week in the city showed me just how inaccurate and unfair the stigmas attached to Memphis are. In seven short days, my impressions of Memphis were completely transformed.

One of the goals of Serve901, an organization we worked with in Memphis, is to educate outsiders on the history of Memphis and to erase the negative stigmas attached to the city, and they surely did just that. We learned from many residents that Memphis was once primed to be the “New York City of the South” until yellow fever struck and wealthy, white residents fled to the suburbs, leaving behind a population that was predominantly poor and Black. Institutionalized segregation, perpetuated by years of systemic racism, further concentrated African Americans in certain impoverished neighborhoods, such as Binghampton and Orange Mound. Needless to say, Memphis did not become the Big Apple of the South and instead garnered a reputation as a city falling apart at the seams.

However, what the statistics and media fail to show is all the wonderful change that is happening in Memphis.

One of the largest problems in Memphis is food scarcity, a phenomenon in which people living in an area do not have regular access to healthy food, either because they cannot afford it or because grocery stores are too far away and there are no transit options, such as bus lines or access to cars. For example, the historic Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis is a USDA-classified urban food desert, because most of its residents do not own cars and often have to choose between paying rent and buying food. 

Recognizing this serious problem in his community, resident Mike Minnis, whose wife was born and raised in Orange Mound, started Landmark Farmers Market, an urban farming operation and food kitchen in the middle of the neighborhood. Now, residents of Orange Mound can access affordable, healthy, fresh-grown fruits and vegetables only a short walk away. Minnis’s efforts have even inspired others in the neighborhood to start their own gardens and take control of their own health.

And it doesn’t stop there. With intimate knowledge about the exchange of information within the families of the community, Minnis plans to educate his neighborhood on nutrition and health education by way of children’s comic books. Through these simple yet genuine actions, he is stirring tangible change in the roots of his community.

The Binghampton Development Corporation is another organization that aims to combat food scarcity in the Binghampton neighborhood. Although Gray did not grow up in Binghampton and thus hasn’t experienced its problems firsthand, he makes it a priority to engage members of the community in the BDC’s efforts by hiring them or listening to their personal testimonials. For example, after consulting with residents of Binghampton and discovering they have to take multiple buses to get to the nearest Kroger for groceries — a trip that can take several hours — the BDC began development of a new plaza in the heart of the neighborhood. When it is complete, no resident will live more than a mile away from a grocery store.

The BDC has also reshaped the community in other substantial ways, such as building parks in abandoned lots, converting a rundown apartment complex into a senior living center and opening the Carpenter Art Garden. The Art Garden houses a number of after-school activities and clubs, allowing the children of Binghampton to discover artistic, engineering, carpentry, sewing, writing and entrepreneurial skills that might’ve otherwise gone untapped. By listening to and engaging with the community — rather than coming in and assuming they know best, as many “saviors” of blighted neighborhoods do — the BDC is proof that positive change can happen quickly when people are passionate about their communities.

BDC Boardmember Robert Montague is another figure who has used his privilege for the betterment of those not as fortunate. Once a successful businessman and computing analyst, Montague used his money and expertise to found the BDC. His latest endeavor, Tech901, aims to confront the shortage of IT talent in Memphis, as well as the lack of diversity in the field. By teaching young Memphians how to code and equipping them with professional development skills, Tech901 is making the future of Memphis marketable. It would be easy to make lots of money by teaching programming classes in the richer suburbs of Memphis, but by investing in people in the inner city, Tech901 is investing in its future.

Landmark Farmers Market, the BDC and Tech901 are only a handful of all the wonderful organizations that are dedicated to improving different aspects of Memphis, and the more I saw, the more I realized how mistaken my initial impressions of the city were. With the work of these community organizers, Memphis is proving its negative reputation wrong — proving me wrong.

Many University of Michigan students come from a place of privilege and may feel far removed from the problems in Memphis — or even in Detroit, a mere 40 minutes away — but as the people at the BDC and Tech901 have demonstrated, that is no excuse to ignore and avoid the very real problems that are happening. These organizations recognized the problems within these communities and made real improvements by working with the people living there. As University students, we, too, can use our privilege for good. Our education has afforded us knowledge, skills and resources that would be well-spent helping a population that doesn’t have the same privileges.

And we don’t have to wait until graduation to start making a positive impact; even as undergraduates, there are a number of resources at our fingertips. M-HEAL is just one fine example. Devoted to global health, M-HEAL project teams reach out to contacts in developing countries to identify health needs in those regions and design solutions to the problem using all the resources this University has to offer. Through this design process, we gain valuable experience in engineering and global health, but the focus of these projects is always on the people we are hoping to help. Through constant contact, research and needs assessment trips, we make sure we are always catering to their needs, requests and wishes, because when you’re helping a city or country in need, it’s really about helping the people there.

As we finished our tour of Binghampton, Gray said of Memphians: “We do not love Memphis because it’s great; Memphis is great because we love it.” That love is so evident in all the wonderful work they do, and it is truly something to learn from and aspire toward.

Ashley Zhang can be reached at ashleyzh@umich.edu.